Ryan Hogan and Derrick Smith are cashing in by selling immersive murder mysteries in monthly subscription boxes.
RYAN HOGAN and DERRICK SMITH are cashing in on the pandemic’s deadly combination of boredom and screen fatigue by selling immersive murder mysteries packaged in monthly subscription boxes.
IIt’s Saturday night in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, and Heather Nicoll, a 31-year-old graphic designer, is investigating a murder. Along with a close friend, she rummages through a box of old newspaper clippings, financial records and police reports as she attempts to solve the grisly death of Jake Morgan, the lead singer of Just4fun, a fictitious boy band. Every month Nicoll, along with 100,000 others, pays around $30 to Baltimore-based startup Hunt A Killer to receive a new installment of the game. It will take a full “season” of six boxes, costing $180, to get to the bottom of Morgan’s death. “I don’t mess around when it comes to cracking these cases,” says Nicoll, who tracks her results with a pencil in a binder. “I’m fully addicted to investigating things now.”
Hunt A Killer is played almost entirely offline—and that’s largely the point. “There is not a better time that’s needed to put your phone down, get off Twitter and get off all these other devices,” says CEO Ryan Hogan, 36, a former U.S. Naval officer. “We’re going crazy right now. We all need to be able to detox.”
Last year, Hogan’s company, which he cofounded with his childhood friend Derrick Smith, 37, generated $27 million in revenue by selling subscriptions, premium “all-in-one” editions and collections of previous installments (starting at $140 for six boxes). The pandemic is providing a big boost: This year Hunt A Killer should book about $50 million in revenue and hopes to turn a profit for the first time. The two founders own 85%, worth just over $65 million.
The duo are the latest beneficiaries of a boardgame boomlet that dates to the mid-1990s, when a complex German strategy game called Settlers of Catan first became popular on American college campuses. Catan has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and still generates north of $100 million in revenue annually some 25 years after its initial release. Overall, Euromoni
tor expects sales of board games in North America to increase from $3.4 billion in 2019 to about $4.1 billion in 2024.
“Growth was explosive for games the first half of this year,” says Stephanie Wissink, who tracks the industry for Jefferies. “The category was up 37% this year. I’ve worked in this space for two decades and have never seen that.”
Hunt A Killer dates back to a failed apparel company called Warwear that Hogan started with his wife while he was still in the Navy. Stuck with $100,000 worth of unsold T-shirts, in 2011 Hogan teamed up with Smith to stage a series of horror-themed 5K races called Run for Your Lives (participants fled zombies planted around the course). That company went bankrupt, but the experience started the duo down an entrepreneurial path that by 2016 had morphed into the first installments of Hunt A Killer.
Working from Smith’s basement, the cofounders did everything themselves, from designing the games to packing and shipping them. By 2017, the company had 25,000 subscribers and a cult following on Facebook. “Covid certainly accelerated our path,” Hogan says, “but we aren’t a Covid-based company.”
Next up: retail. In September, Hunt A Killer debuted a version of its flagship game for $30 on Amazon. The same product will be available at Target in October. Brand collaborations with Lionsgate, based on the Blair Witch movies, and with Simon & Schuster (Nancy Drew books) are also in the works.
“If we can make these amazing experiences that provide escapism and immerse you in a story,” Hogan says, “there’s just nothing greater.”
“THE MORE WAYS WE HAVE TO CONNECT, THE MORE MANY OF US SEEM DESPERATE TO UNPLUG.” —Pico Iyer